The remarkable life of a Cork sport star

A childhood bout of polio left Kay McShane in a wheelchair for life, but it didn’t stop her making her mark in the sporting world. CHRIS DUNNE recalls an extraordinary woman who died just before Christmas
The remarkable life of a Cork sport star
Kay McShane taking part in a marathon.

AN ordinary woman who lived an extraordinary life. That sums up the tributes to a remarkable Cork Paralympian athlete who died just before Christmas.

Kay McShane, of Cobh, was a wheelchair user all her life, having contracted polio as a child, but became a global superstar, winning the London Marathon wheelchair event in 1984 and 1985, and getting silver in the Paralympics.

She died on December 20, 2019, aged 70.

“She was really modest, quiet, and unassuming,” said her husband, Michael White.

“We had an amazing life together for over 30 years as any two people could have. Sport brought us together.

“Kay went through life doing her best to live a good, decent existence, not hurting anyone, being honest in her dealings with others, helping anyone she could and expecting nothing in return. She never saw herself as anything but an ordinary woman,” added Michael, a former snooker champion who lives in Mulhuddart, Dublin.

Kay was born near Fermoy and reared on Spike Island with five sisters and a brother. Her childhood battle with polio left its mark on her life but she campaigned for the rights of people with disabilities and was very involved with the Blanchardstown Centre of Independent Living, working towards equal opportunities and equal rights. But it was in sport where she really made her mark.

Kay, a civil servant, won many wheelchair road races both home and abroad during her illustrious athletic career, including the Echo Mini Marathon.

Michael adds: “To think a little island like Spike Island, now a major tourist attraction, produced an athlete of Kay’s calibre is hard to believe. I am glad now that Spike Island is accessible for everyone. Kay would be happy about that. I remember she told me when she got the boat across to Cobh to go to secondary school, she had to bide her time until it could get nearer to the dock so she could get off the boat rocking on the waves more easily. She had crutches and she used callipers as well.”

Come hell or high water, nothing was going to hold Kay back.

“She was a fierce competitor,” says close friend and fellow Cork Paralympian Cathy Dunne Fitzpatrick. “Kay trained very hard, doing miles and miles of road every day.

“Kay and I, along with John Twomey, were the first disabled athletes to become members of Leevale Athletic Club, which was the first club in Cork to accept disabled athletes, hence we became life-long members,” says Cathy.

“We trained hard to qualify for Irish and international events and for the Seoul Paralympics in 1988. Kay put in Trojan hours on the road. She was determined and driven.”

They both were.

“We had to work hard to qualify for our spot on the team,” says Cathy. “Our Chef De Mission, Jimmy Byrne, told us we had to be willing to give up our social lives; otherwise not to bother turning up. So we did! Nothing was a piece of cake, We had to fight to keep our place.

Kay McShane from Cobh  taking part in the 1983 Echo Women's Mini Marathon.
Kay McShane from Cobh  taking part in the 1983 Echo Women's Mini Marathon.

“Kay was determined and committed. After she retired from competition, she helped train young athletes and campaigned for disability rights. People looked up to her and young athletes wanted to emulate her.”

“When we came back from Seoul we came back to a heroes’ welcome,” says Cathy. “The Lord Mayor of Cork, Bernard Allen, met us and we were paraded through Patrick Street on the back of a truck! The Jazz Festival was on and that added to the fantastic home-coming celebrations.”

Cathy and Kay and shared accommodation in the Olympic Village in Seoul in 1988, which was the first time in the history that paralympian participants used the same facilities as the participants in the Olympic Games. The Irish team were the first team to arrive in Seoul.

“We had great cráic together,” recalls Cathy. “When we weren’t competing in our own events and we had a free day, we went along to see Michael play snooker to cheer him on.”

Is that when Michael knew he was snookered, falling for Kay?

Cathy laughs. “That’s when they were courting. Michael used to buy Kay teddy bears and good luck charms!”

Michael recalls that magical time. “There was a terrific atmosphere at all the sports events in the early ’80s and ’90s,” says Michael. “We made life-long friends and travelled the world.”

He adds: “I was a bit slow to propose! We thought about getting married in the Little Chapel in Las Vegas, but we had an idyllic wedding nine years ago in Edinburgh.”

Kay was a beautiful bride.

“And if anyone admired an outfit she had on, she would give it away to them!” says Michael, smiling. “I told her she gave her clothes away so that she could fill up the wardrobe again! Kay had a great sense of humour and we had great laughs.”

Was there any down-side to the match made in heaven?

“She couldn’t play snooker!” says Michael laughing. “And if she tried archery, you’d have to clear the hall. I remember that!”

Her sisters remember her kindness.

“When Kay lived in Cork and was working upstairs in Fitzgeralds Menswear, she let us stay in her flat in Capwell Road when we were going to music events. She didn’t care what we did!”

They remember her fierce independence.

“She spent a long time far away from home in Dublin in hospital,” says Kay’s younger sister, Anne. “Kay went through intense operations which were often barbaric.

“She used her sticks to stabilise herself and she’d swing one leg and then the other going up the steps to school, the Tech in Cobh. Access to places was always difficult. Kay had no use of her legs and became a wheelchair user when she started in the Civil Service in Dublin, having gotten involved in wheelchair athletics here in Cork.”

Kay was always a natural athlete.

“I used to go out running,” says Anne. “Kay did wheelchair sprints and I couldn’t keep up with her. After doing a marathon, she was still fresh as a daisy. She had incredible stamina.

“She supported the rights of the individual. She loved babies and young people.”

Kay wasn’t prepared to grow old gracefully.

“She used to joke; “now I’m a sweet little old lady. Now what?”

“She had ongoing medical issues,” says Michael. “She coped well and always said; ‘I’m all right’.”

But she wasn’t all right. Kay had cancer.

“I remember we went out to the shops one Saturday, just over a month ago,” Michael says. “We were both in wheelchairs and I towed her along the street.”

This was the woman who did early morning pushes from the sea-front in Clontarf to Howth, 10 miles long?

“Yes, Kay was relentless,” says Michael. “She was the strongest Cork woman you could get.”

Kay’s illness proved relentless.

“When we went to the A&E the consultant called me in and used words like aggressive,” says Michael tearfully. 

“Kay had stomach cancer that had spread to her liver. It was bad news. I asked the consultant if it was going to kill her and he said it was. It was a matter of weeks.”

Michael, always championing his wife, wasn’t going to fall approaching the final hurdle.

“I bawled for the first week,” he admits. But Michael was a Paralympic champion just like his wife.

“We joked about what kind of a wig Kay would get,” he says.

Kay and Michael sure had a good time on their marathon journey that spanned over 30 years.

“She was just a little girl who achieved so much,” says Michael.

Kay was a genuine source of pride to the town of Cobh, the town that loved her so well.

“I know she’d like to encourage parents of disabled children to get them involved in sport,” says Michael. 

“That would be her legacy. Sport gives people the opportunity to grow both in confidence and self-esteem. Kay was a star.”

And she was a winner. So No. Kay McShane was no ordinary woman.

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